ATLANTA - The Senate on Wednesday passed a bill that would deny some taxpayer-funded services to illegal immigrants and hurt businesses that knowingly hire them.
After months of sometimes rancorous debate on immigration, the Georgia Security and Immigration Compliance Act cleared the Senate 40-13 with little verbal jousting. The bill now goes to the House.
"It is often said, and erroneously, that enforcement of immigration law is only a federal issue," Sen. Chip Rogers, R-Woodstock, told his colleagues. "It is not only a federal issue but also a state and local issue."
Georgia, with its carpet, poultry, construction and agricultural industries thriving on cheap labor - mainly illegal immigrants from Mexico - is now estimated to have the seventh-largest population of undocumented foreigners in the country. Georgia citizens, who will vote in November, believe they are footing the bill for services for the rising tide of immigrants.
Under Senate Bill 529, state and local governments would only be able to work with contractors who participate in a federal program to verify the legal status of their workers.
Anyone arrested on a felony charge would have his or her status checked. Businesses would not be able to deduct payroll taxes for workers unless they have proper documents on file.
Adults would have to prove their legal status before receiving any state-funded public benefits, except for emergency medical or neonatal care.
The measure also would help illegal immigrants by penalizing human trafficking and people who portray themselves falsely as lawyers or those who can help immigrants with the identification paperwork.
"Some have said we should wait on Congress. I wish we could, but we've waited long enough," said Senate President Pro Tem Eric Johnson, R-Savannah. "Every taxpayer should understand why this problem should be addressed."
A Democrat-led attempt to hold businesses more accountable by adding hefty fines for employers who knowingly hire undocumented workers failed to receive enough votes.
Mr. Rogers said he supported some of the ideas, including having the Georgia Bureau of Investigation investigate the work-related complaints, but thought there were too many details that needed to be worked out before tacking on the amendment.
An amendment that would allow authorities to seize equipment used to make fake identification documents was approved.